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What's in a TNE number? Not enough...

15 December 2016
Rod Bristow

Dan Cook

Head of Data Policy and Development
Higher Education Statistics Agency
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In comparison to other higher education sectors, the UK's data on HE TNE is rich. Responses to HESA's annual collection of the aggregate offshore record (AOR) have improved, and research like The Scale and Scope of UK HE TNE offers analysis of the HESA statistics, as well as exploring the gaps in that data. However, compared to its other HE data, the UK's TNE data is poor. International and partnerships managers at universities, alongside policy makers, are clamouring to know more, in order to make better decisions to enable TNE students' greater success. Dan Cook considers the wide ranging data requests made at an HEGlobal seminar earlier this year. 

The impact of recent policy changes in the UK, not least the outcome of the referendum on EU membership, has attracted considerable media attention. Whilst there is uncertainty for universities looking to implement their international strategies for growth, it is not all doom and gloom: there is a quiet (although getting louder) success story happening overseas. Transnational education (TNE) has been growing fast. This has been indicated in the HESA data, and the recent The Scale and Scope of UK higher education transnational education research report from HEGlobal has confirmed and increased assumptions about growth.

What do we know about this UK HE success story? In terms of hard data, little more than the university, country and overall level of study, along with a headcount of students. But the case studies in the report, and the richer data the investigators collected, point out the growing interest in TNE.

At the launch event for the report, I facilitated a workshop on our current information needs around TNE. Delegates made a strong case for more detailed information being collected to support analysis of TNE, including basic student biographical and background information - like nationality, ethnicity, funding, and prior learning. A need was also identified for better information about courses and subjects, along with modes of study and student progression on courses, to aid planning and business/market intelligence. Delegates were also keen to obtain better data about student satisfaction and graduate destinations, and to be able to use this data for benchmarking - one member of the audience called for an international equivalent of the Destinations of Leavers survey, an idea which received a lot of support from the room. There were also a wide range of needs for better information about target markets, regulation, and the competitive and collaborative state of the higher education sector in different countries and regions.

These ambitions represent a wider range of data than is available in the HESA Aggregate Offshore record, and we are mindful of the need to minimise burden. However, the case for collection through HESA is strengthened by the high level of institutional engagement with regular research projects (such as 'Scope and Scale') which gather more detailed information than HESA. It is conclusive that we need to look again at the HESA Aggregate Offshore Record, and substantially update it to meet UK HE's current needs.

The benefits of collecting data need to be carefully weighed, and HESA is currently in the process of establishing the collective governance mechanism for the sector's data to oversee this process. We have included data requirements for TNE in initial work for our Data Futures programme, to ensure that the emerging needs in this area are considered alongside our general systems redesign. Through this process we will examine carefully the case for changing the data collection, and the options available. I look forward to continued productive engagement with the HEGlobal community as this work progresses.

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